"Love in the New World"
Literary Hub, November 2017.
It was 1991, my second year at law school at Georgetown University. On an October morning, I had traveled to New York City from Washington, DC to interview for a summer associate position. That night, I was staying with Richard, a friend from college. He had tickets for the benefit of an Asian American theater, or something worthy like that. I had just broken up with a Korean guy who was ten years older than me, because I wasn’t ready to settle down. So Richard and I went downtown to check out the scene.
The club was filled with Asian American professional types.
“You should ask someone to dance,” I said to Richard.
“Why don’t you ask someone to dance?”
I had just finished a daylong interview at a law firm. I was wearing a black cocktail dress and matching jacket from a store called the New York Look. I was full of beans and why-nots.
Across from us, there was a cluster of young men in business suits. In the center of the group, there was a good-looking hapa standing soberly, holding a battered briefcase.
I walked right up to the briefcase man.
“Do you want to dance?”
On the dance floor, I asked him a bunch of questions while trying to make my best moves. I’m not a good dancer, but I am enthusiastic.
His name was Chris; he was a junior equities salesman. His mother was Japanese and his dad was a white American from Iowa. He was born in Kobe and spoke fluent Japanese.
I told myself that it didn’t matter that he wasn’t Korean—the only kind of man I was allowed to marry. This was just a dance.
We dated for 13 months. It was an easy relationship, because we liked being together. He was funny, smart and thoughtful. He read novels by Julian Barnes and Kobo Abe. When I’d get discouraged, he told me he believed in my instincts. It was the winter of my third year in law school, and he was visiting me in DC for the weekend. As usual, Sunday afternoon had come too soon. He had to take the train back to New York. I was living in a one-bedroom on Van Ness, which still had a lot of light even late in the day. We talked about life after graduation.
“Well, I don’t think we’ll get married,” I said.
“Because you’re not going to marry me.”
“Yes, I would.”
“Would you? Would you marry me?” he asked.
“Of course,” I replied. It was so obvious.
Chris was 26, and I was 23 when we got engaged.
He had not yet met my parents.
My parents, two sisters and I immigrated to America in 1976 when I was seven. My father is from Wonsan, and my mother is a minister’s daughter from Busan, so they were raised in the opposite sides of the country. My father was born in 1934, and my mother was born in 1941, when there was still one Korea, and it was still a colony of Japan. My father spoke fluent Japanese because he had been forced to learn it in school and forbidden to speak Korean. In 1950, at the onset of the Korean War, my grandmother sent my father and his brother down south to keep them safe. They would never see each other again, and at age 16, my father became a war refugee. When he and his brother arrived in Busan, they ran out of money in a few days, so my father worked as a food peddler, selling gimbap. Eventually, my father put himself through college and worked in marketing. One day, my mother, after graduating from college, went to look for a temporary office job, and my father interviewed her. After the interview, he asked her out for coffee then asked her to marry him.
Growing up, my parents didn’t really talk to my sisters and me about boys and dating. The one explicit rule was that when we married, we had to marry a Korean. We were not supposed to fool around. Our family struggled in the new land, and each of us had defined jobs. My sisters and I would do our schoolwork and housework, and our parents would provide for us. When we first moved to the States, my father and mother ran a newspaper stand in a run-down Manhattan office building; then a year later, they ran a tiny wholesale jewelry store on 30th Street and Broadway. My parents worked six days a week and closed the store on Sundays for church. They were always tired, and my sisters and I felt sorry for them.
I did not date much in high school or college, and I didn’t bring boys home unless they were Korean.
Then I fell in love with Chris, who was not only not Korean, but he was half Japanese. Chris’s maternal grandfather, Chuji Kabayama, was a count before the peerage was abolished. His great grandfather was a governor of Taiwan when Japan colonized Taiwan. My Korean grandmother lost her sons, her country and starved, while Chris’s Japanese grandmother educated her son at Amherst while eating white rice and fish every day. Of course, none of this had figured when I asked a nice looking boy to dance.
That Sunday night, immediately after Chris took the train back to New York, I phoned my parents. I told them that I’d been dating someone for over a year, that I had fallen in love, and that I was going to marry him. He was not Korean.
“If you marry him, you are not my daughter,” my father said and hung up the phone. They would not pay for my school.
It was not difficult to take out loans for the remainder of my law school tuition. However, it was very hard not to speak with my father. From my sister, I learned that Dad’s high blood pressure was worsening, and everyone feared that he would have a stroke. My father refused to get on the phone. I was disowned, and though this misnomer makes little sense to the modern ear, it felt exactly like it sounded. My father had left me like an unwanted parcel.
I wanted to marry Chris, but I also wanted my father’s blessing. I respected my father. As a boy, he had lost everything, and as an immigrant, he had endured many indignities. When he ran the newspaper stand, he wore a coat and tie to work, and I recall watching a white man fling a dime at him across the counter when buying a copy of the Daily News. In Korea, one handed any item to another using both hands to show mutual respect. He loaned money without interest to fellow immigrants who could not make rent, even as he ate half a sandwich to save money for our education. I knew my father was a good man, and I knew he was afraid. He was afraid that like him, I could be mistreated at the hands of history, or at the hands of someone not from home.
However, I had been in America since I was seven years old. I was an American legally and spiritually, and I believed it was wrong to dismiss a person because of his race and ethnicity. I felt that if my father met Chris, he would change his mind. I had been a poor immigrant child who had been given extra math help from a Ukrainian-American algebra teacher before school even started; Jewish teachers had written my college recommendations; a gay Italian-American teacher had taught me how to write better sentences in English, and my closest friends in the world were African American, Chinese from Hong Kong, Taiwan and the PRC, as well as from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba. White Anglo Saxon Protestant pastors had checked in on me in college when I was lost, and French Jewish doctors had cared for me when I was ill. Greek and Irish American mothers from the neighborhood had always had a kind word for my family. And every Sunday morning, we had been taught to love all of our neighbors, and I knew my father believed in this.
The sparkling constellation of my childhood universe in this country had taught me that if given the chance to be in the regular and faithful presence of another person who did not look or act like me, we would still grow intimate, and one’s ethnic background or essential difference would eventually become only one other quality in the complex portrait of a person’s life. And I believed that despite my father’s understandable fears of other people he did not know, I knew he believed in the goodness of people. So I wrote all this down in a letter, and I mailed it to him, and at the bottom of the letter, I wrote, if you do not wish me to marry Chris after you meet him, then I will consider this deeply, but I ask you to meet him, because I am young, and I need your guidance.
A few weeks later, my father met him. Chris came to my parents’ house, bringing a bottle of Scotch for my father and a bouquet of orange tulips for my mother. My father took him to the living room, and they spoke in Japanese. And maybe an hour later, they emerged from the room still talking like men do back home—with solemnity and kindness.
My parents have known Chris for over 25 years now, and when we visit, my mother grills him his favorite fish, and my father asks him about the markets. At times, it seems that even my own parents favor him over me, but I cannot say that I mind.